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St. Louis regional food banks spend more on food this year to keep up with demand

The Greater St. Louis Area Council boy scouts helped gather food for distribution with the St. Louis Area FoodBank earlier last week.
St. Louis Area FoodBank
The Greater St. Louis Area Council of the Boy Scouts helped gather food for distribution with the St. Louis Area Food Bank last week.

Thousands of people across the St. Louis region who are feeling a pinch in their wallets because of rising food prices and others who cannot afford to buy food are visiting food banks.

Regional food banks are trying to meet the increased demand, but that has been difficult this year because food donations are down due to high food costs.

Food banks have been serving more families since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, largely because many people lost their jobs. But now many people cannot afford to purchase extra food because it's more expensive, said Jocelyn Fundoukos, director of communications for Operation Food Search in Overland.

“It is clear that people are doing everything they can to put food on the table themselves, but they are finding that it is not enough,” she said.

Operation Food Search provides food to over 200 pantries and community shelters in 27 counties throughout Missouri and Illinois. The food bank has received about 16% fewer food donations this year than last year. To make up for some of the decline in food donations, food bank officials spent about $1.27 million purchasing food this year. They also increased the food bank’s gleaning program by rescuing unused produce from local farms.

“We are donation-based in the sense that we use rescued food or donations from individuals and from foundations and companies,” Fundoukos said. “But some of those financial donations we are now using to purchase food to make up for the actual food that might not be coming in.”

Many food banks are scrambling to make meals possible for thousands of families in the area this year. Federal programs and funding that were once available to help with distributing food during the pandemic no longer exist and have left food banks stretched thin, said Meredith Knopp, president and CEO of St. Louis Area Foodbank.

“What we are left with is dealing with numbers as high as they were during the pandemic, but without that safety net,” Knopp said. “We just had our biggest food drive of the year, and they did an amazing job, but it was less than we got the year before.”

The St. Louis Area Foodbank services 26 counties in Missouri and Illinois and provides food for nearly 600 pantries. Knopp said community food drives and donations from grocery stores, wholesalers, retailers and manufacturers are all down this year, though the need is still high. Financial donations are off, as well.

“We are purchasing products at levels that we have never seen in our history, and trying to figure out how we are going to do that is challenging,” she said. “Raising the money is challenging. Finding the product to buy is challenging."

In October alone, the St. Louis Area Foodbank spent about $850,000 on food purchases to take care of hungry families, which Knopp said can vary each month. This Thanksgiving season the food bank expects to feed nearly 4,000 families, eight times the number of families it fed four years ago.

“For us to put turkeys on the tables of so many families this year, we had to purchase those,” Knopp said.

A growing number of families are receiving food from a food bank for the first time, and new clients arrive every day.

“Many of the people who are coming to see us … they are working a full-time job, or they are working two part-time jobs, or they are on a fixed income,” Knopp said. “They are saying, ‘My budget worked, until the prices of everything went up, and now it just does not.’”

Andrea covers race, identity & culture at St. Louis Public Radio.